HC Deb 22 March 1993 vol 221 cc499-501W
Mr. Brandreth

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the work of the Department of Agriculture (Northern Ireland) since 1979.

Mr. Hanley

[holding answer 18 March 1993]: Since 1979 grants totalling £492 million have been paid to support capital investments on farms. Cattle and sheep farmers have been paid £502 million under livestock subsidy schemes.

To facilitate animal disease control, the Department has introduced computerised animal health records to enable the movement of animals to be monitored for disease control purposes. The Department has continued to ensure that the animal health status of Northern Ireland remains among the highest in Europe. Since 1979 bovine brucellosis has been virtually eradicated and an enhanced eradication programme has been introduced last year with a view to achieving final eradication. Northern Ireland has been accepted last year by the European Community as an enzootic bovine leucosis-free region of the European Community. Cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy unfortunately appeared in the Province since late 1988. Measures have been introduced to bring these under control, to remove the slightest possible public health risk and to ensure that the maximum number of markets remain open for Northern Irish beef. Almost all meat plants and cold stores in the Province have been brought to and maintained at full EC approved status, approximately 500,000 cattle, ¾ million sheep, 1.1 million pigs and 46 million poultry are inspected each year by the Department's veterinary meat inspection service guaranteeing the consumer a safe and wholesome product. Over 17,000 veterinary certificates are provided each year to allow meat and meat products to be exported from the Province. During the period the Department has enhanced its residue testing programme, to allay public health concerns and to satisfy EC requirements

Since 1979 significant scientific advances have been made and an extensive research and development programme continues. Research leading to more efficient utilisation of inputs, reduced levels of disease in plants and animals, improved crop varieties, and innovations in food processing is improving the competitiveness of the local agri-food sector.

In managing the interface between agriculture and the environment a comprehensive knowledge of the impact of on-farm practices is coupled with the development of environmental awareness in farmers and the advent of environmentally safe activities.

Research in aquatic sciences has provided a sound basis for the conservation, sustainable exploitation and development of freshwater and marine aquatic resources.

Analytical and disease diagnostic programmes in plants and animals has provided an underpinning support to the continued high plant and animal health status in Northern Ireland.

The Department's staff have carried out over one third of a million personal consultations within the agri-food industry aimed at improving the efficiency of production and marketing and co-operation between individual businesses within the industry as a whole. Quality assurance schemes have been initiated within the agri-food industry to promote and sell quality assured products. The Department has also encouraged farmers and growers to adopt good health and safety practices by a fivefold increase in farm inspections resulting in a 33 per cent. decline in the number of fatal farm accidents.

Since 1979 the Department has catered for a threefold increase in the number of students on full-time courses at agricultural colleges and in excess of a sevenfold increase in the number of participants on short courses. Throughout this period net expenditure on education and training has increased by only 1.9 per cent. in real terms.

Landings of fish in Northern Ireland ports have increased from the 12,000 tonnes in 1979 to 22,900 tonnes in 1992. Development works grant axed by some £9.4 million have been carried out in the three main fishery harbours in the Province.

During the period 8,000 hectares of new planting has been carried out by the forest service and 3,500 hectares by the private sector. The conservation value of State forests have also been considerably increased. In the same period timber sales have increased in volume from 54,000 cubic metres to 200,000 cubic metres with an increase in sale value from £580,000 to £3.5 million.

A total of £87 million has been spent by the Department on capital projects to improve drainage infra-structure and to assist development. Currently some £17.5 million per annum is spent on new schemes and maintenance works to alleviate flooding and minimise risk to life and damaged property in rural and urban environmental protection and rehabilitation measures into the design and execution of drainage works. River corridor surveys form the basis of a fully integrated approach to achieving both nature conservation and land drainage objectives. Since 1990 1.32 km of river corridors have been surveyed.

Since 1988 the environmentally sensitive areas schemes has attracted a total of over 1,000 farmers to enter 19,400 hectares of land in five-year agreements with the Department to use environmentally friendly farming practices. Since 1979 the Department has undertaken some 170 projects to improve the recreational value of waterways for the general public.

In 1989 the Department was given lead responsibility for rural development and structures are now in place to promote integrated rural development. An independent Rural Development Council was established to act as an advice and resource centre for rural community groups and funding is available from Government, the European Community and the International Fund for Ireland. The first two projects to receive capital funding under the programme were officially launched in 1992.